Her Hidden Falls Bronc Riding Cowboy by Taylor Hart

 

Chapter 1

Star Haven hurried to finish the display window for her best friend, Charlotte Hardman. It was a bit much for one person to do, but Star wasn’t about to let an eight-months-pregnant woman strain herself.

“It’s gorgeous,” Charlotte said, with her hands on her hips and her hair pulled back with a dish towel. It’d been a harried day, especially since the town was preparing for the week of July Fourth.

Star put up the last bit of red, white, and blue sparkles and climbed out of the window. “It will do.”

Charlotte put an arm around Star’s shoulders. “I never could have done all of this without you, you know.”

“I wish you weren’t even on your feet right now.” Star frowned at her friend. “Go sit on the couch.”

Charlotte laughed, gingerly resting her hand on her belly. “I’m good, really. She’s kicking right now.” She took Star’s hand and placed it beneath hers.

From within, a tiny leg kicked at Star’s palm. Warmth spread through her. “Ah, she’s a strong one, isn’t she?” Star was thrilled that Charlotte and Ryan were having this child. For the last two years, Star had watched them get back together, first as girlfriend and boyfriend and then as spouses. “I’m so happy for you guys.” She wandered back to the window display and picked up a few pieces of trash. “You guys deserve everything.”

Charlotte’s hand rested on her forearm. “Hold up.”

Star turned to face her and noted sadness in her eyes.

“I want you to have this, too.”

A pang of regret and sadness hit Star, but she pushed it away. It was better not to dwell on things that she couldn’t change. “I will.” She dumped the trash into the bag in the bin, then pulled it out and tied it off. “I’ll get a trash bag and be back.”

Star moved to the back of the bookstore, which was an old apartment. Charlotte had lived in it for a long time, until she and Ryan had gotten married. Now, the two of them had a huge home out on the ranch about a mile down from Charlotte’s mother. The Hardmans and the Talons had combined forces to become the largest cattle ranch and organic farm around. Not to mention the real estate portion they were developing.

With a trash bag in hand, Star returned to the main part of the store. Charlotte had everything else cleaned up, but she was still giving her an accusatory look and her arms were folded. Star put the trash bag in the trash and rolled her eyes at her. “What?”

“You know what.” Charlotte patted her stomach. “You can’t make true love happen if you’re too busy running off with Angela every weekend, dating a bunch of city boys.”

Star bristled. “Oh, sorry. It’s not like I have a lot of options in Hidden Falls.”

“I know your breakup with Harv last year was hard.”

Star gave her the look that said, Do not go there.

Charlotte surrendered. “I’m sorry. We won’t talk about Harv.”

It was hard not to think about him, though. Harv was a pediatric doctor in Hidden Falls. He was ten years older than Star, and his wife had passed away five years before of breast cancer, but six months into their relationship, he’d told her that he didn’t want a family. That a family had been his unfulfilled dream between him and his previous wife, and it didn’t feel right to have that dream with anyone else. Star had ended it that night, and ever since, she’d been going to Charleston and attending these speed-dating meetings.

“You should date Beau.” Charlotte waggled her eyebrows at her and picked up her purse from a hook.

At this, Star sputtered out a laugh. Beau, Ryan’s younger brother, took the most interest in the handling of the ranch, and he was a bronc rider. He’d just come out of retirement and hit the circuit again in hopes of actually winning it. “Ah, no.”

“Why not? You guys see each other practically every day, and you hang out a lot.”

Star shook her head, thinking of how he’d fallen asleep on her little tea couch the other night when they’d been watching an old eighties movie together. The big oaf had been snoring as she’d covered him with one of her mother’s old afghans and tucked him in. Of course, when she’d come down the next morning, he’d been gone and left a note for her. Sorry. I’ll come to do your list in the next couple of days. He still hadn’t done it. “He’s totally unreliable, and he hasn’t fixed my door yet, either.”

Star hated broken things; they seemed to mock her. Most things she could fix and she hated asking for anyone’s help—well except Beau. He was a genius at fixing things.

Charlotte cocked an eyebrow. “You guys have been flirting and hanging out hard-core since Ryan and I have been together. It’s time to quit messing around and go all in.”

“No,” Star said, screwing up her face. “Do you know Beau Hardman and the way he serial-dates until feelings get involved and then he’s out?” She made a gesture like a baseball umpire. “And don’t forget about Kendra.” Kendra had been Star’s nemesis since high school, and now she owned a hotel on the other side of town. Beau had dated that woman last year for eight months, nearly ruining Star’s friendship with him.

“Well, Kendra is … Kendra.” Charlotte laughed. “He never really liked her.”

“Seems like he did.”

Charlotte gestured to her. “You’ve been the constant in Beau’s life for, like, forever. I think you and Beau are in the process of writing your love story.”

She scoffed. “You mean bronc riding has been his constant. He’s in a love story with Bronc riding.”

“Oh, I know,” Charlotte said, and they started to walk out the back door. “Don’t get us started on that.”

Star nodded. It was a touchy subject for all of them because none of them agreed with Beau doing such a dangerous sport.

“So Richard’s been doing a lot of asking about you,” Charlotte said.

This made Star perk up.

Charlotte pulled a tube of ChapStick out of her purse. “Ryan told me he keeps turning the conversation to you,” she said as she applied a layer to her lips.

A flutter went off in Star’s stomach. Richard was Ryan’s best friend. Their bond had been forged through military service when they’d been captured for months in Iraq. Richard was now a billionaire in Charleston—and a gorgeous one at that. “He has?” At the last Hardman family party, he’d been persistently asking her questions and shamelessly flirting with her. In fact, Beau had noticed it and complained to her about later.

Charlotte scoffed. “He could take you to Paris.”

Paris. The one place Star had been saving to go to for what felt like forever. Last year, she’d finally saved enough cash, and then Charlotte had gotten pregnant on her.

Charlotte put her hand on her shoulder. “We’ll go soon.”

“Of course we will,” Star said, trying to sound like she meant it. It’d be at least another year. When you had a baby, it was hard to leave home. When she was growing up, she’d always wanted to travel, and her mother had said to her, Do it before you have a family, because when you start having kids and responsibilities, it’s hard to get away.

“Anyway,” Charlotte continued. “I actually think you and Beau should date.” She winked at her. “How many times did you marry him when we were kids?”

The memory made Star take pause. She had loved to plan her wedding back then. “Ah, no.”

“Give Beau a chance,” Charlotte said.

“Why are you even saying this? I have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s not like he’s ever asked for a chance.”

Charlotte grinned at her. “Call it mother’s intuition, but I think you guys are about to have your own love story.”

Star grunted, reaching for the door. “There’s no chance of that.”

Suddenly, there was a loud knock, the kind the FBI might use at the front door.

Charlotte jumped, putting her hand to her chest. “Dang it, that scared me.”

Both of them paused. Hidden Falls wasn’t a town that had a lot of crime. Usually, no one even came into the store in the last hour it was open.

Star waved Charlotte back. “I’ll see who it is.” There was a silhouette of someone pressed against the glass. She relaxed when she realized it was Beau. “It’s fine, just the idiot we were talking about.” She opened the door. “What are you doing?”

Beau laughed and pushed past her, running his fingers through her hair and giving it a slight yank. “Nice to see you, too.”

“You scared me to death,” Charlotte said, moving back to the front of the store. “You knock so loud.”

Beau embraced his sister-in-law. “Hey, little mama, you’re okay.” He put his hand on her stomach, like they were blood siblings rather than related through marriage.

Charlotte pushed his chest even as she let him touch her belly. “Pregnancy has made me jumpy. You know that.”

Beau softened. “How are you feeling today?”

“Tired,” she said, pouting a bit.

Beau frowned. “I’m sorry. What can I do?”

Charlotte rolled her eyes. “Tell that husband of mine to finish putting up the crib.”

“He still hasn’t done that?”

“No. And I have this anger inside of me every time I walk past the baby room.”

Beau nodded. “Consider it done first thing tomorrow.”

Star loved that about Beau. He was constantly taking care of his family in one way or another.

Star knew that Ryan did what he could, but he had been busy on the new real estate development that united the Talon and Hardman ranches.

Charlotte gave Beau a winning smile. “Have I told you that you’re my favorite Hardman brother?”

Beau scrunched his face up at Charlotte and dropped her hand. “Yeah, yeah.” He moved behind the pastry counter. “Then you won’t care if I take a cookie.”

“Go ahead.” Charlotte cleared her throat. “Star and I were just talking about how you two used to get married weekly when we were all kids.”

Star gave Charlotte a grimace.

Charlotte scrunched her nose at her playfully.

Beau swiped two cookies. “Yes, we did.” He took a bite and moved next to Star, nudging her. “You thinking about marrying me?” Cookie crumbles fell on his lips.

“Nooo,” Star said, making him and Charlotte both laugh.

Star pointed at him. “You know I’d never marry a bronc-riding fool.”

A bucket of cold water; that’s what Star had just thrown on Beau. Truth be told, his bronc riding was a point of contention between them.

His ‘fun face’ fell to gloom, but he recovered nicely, winking at her. “Well if it’s not marrying me, then you were thinking about kissing me, right? The only reason I ever agreed to be your groom was because I got to kiss you.”

“Shut up.” She wagged a finger at him. “The only reason you agreed to be my groom was because your mother said you were the closest to my age and you had to.”

Beau’s eyebrows shot up. “True.” He flashed a smile. “But you never complained about kissing me.”

Her heart raced, and she remembered being young and how much she’d enjoyed kissing him. “Shut up.”

Charlotte burst into laughter, and Star joined in, pretending it was a joke.

Beau grunted. “That’s right. I knew it.”

Charlotte pointed to the front. “What did you think of the window?”

Beau moved to the window, taking the time to inspect the display. “The window looks good. Is that Star’s handiwork?”

“Yep,” Charlotte said.

Star felt a burst of satisfaction, but she pretended not to care. “Thanks. What are you up to besides scaring the townspeople tonight?”

Beau wandered back to her side, munching while he talked. “I don’t know. What do you want to do? I stopped at your place, and then I came here. Want to grab dinner?”

Charlotte’s head tilted up, and she gave Star a huge smile that said, I told you he likes you.

But it wasn’t a big deal. This was what she and Beau did. They hung out. They were best friends, that’s all. “Sure.”

Beau put his arm around her shoulders, and she could tell he’d showered. The smell of cool mint cologne, the kind he’d worn forever pulsed through her. She leaned into him to smell deeper.

“You smelling me?” With a sly grin, he turned to Charlotte and pointed to Star. “She’s smelling me.”

Charlotte laughed. “Seems like she was.”

Star shrugged off his arm and moved to the front door. “I just noticed you didn’t stink, okay?”

Beau and Charlotte laughed, again.

Star was feeling a little boxed in by Charlotte insisting she and Beau would have some kind of love story. “Whatever, let’s go.” She gave Charlotte a second glance. “You okay?”

“You bet,” Charlotte said. She winked at her. “You kids have fun.”

Beau hurried and opened the door for Star, then gestured for her to walk past. “My lady.”

She smiled at his quirkiness. He was a true gentleman, even though he ate cookies and talked at the same time. “Thank you.”

He hurried ahead to his truck and opened the door for her there, too. “Hey, Star, want to go rabbit hunting after we eat?”

And this was why she didn’t date him. “No, thank you.”

He laughed as he shut the door.